Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Saga of Utah Court Records

The story of Utah's court records is an outstanding example of how otherwise seemingly innocuous records can find their way into the most outlandish places. Looking for records is one of the basic activities of doing family history research. It is far too easy to just assume that no records exist and just give up the search simply because the records are not in the expected location.

Some time ago, I began a search for my Great-Great-Grandfather's birth place. He was born in Ireland, Northern Ireland to be specific, but the place recorded by his daughter, my Great-Grandmother, does not exist. It is a relatively long story, but after I inherited all of my Great-Grandmother's genealogy files and processed them, this one glaring fact remained unresolved. At the same time, I was facing an interesting social/cultural issue; historic polygamy among my ancestors. By the way, there is an interesting development in this regard, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has very recently published two extensive essays on the subject on the website. The two essays are in the Gospel Topics section of the website under the Teachings tab on the homepage. Here are the links:
There are links to other related topics also. Now back to my narrative. One of the things that was not openly discussed in my family was the existence of plural marriages among my own ancestors. As I did my research, I discovered the plural marriages and documented them. No great secret at the time, but since some of my ancestors ended up being prosecuted for unlawful cohabitation (uc) by the U.S. Federal Government, they certainly had generated court records. In thinking about my Great-Great-Grandfather's missing birthplace, I speculated that perhaps in he had given his birthplace as a part of the court proceedings after I learned that he had been sent to prison for about three months as a result of his plural marriage to a second wife. 

I began my search for Utah Court Records. Presently, the Utah State Archives has a very advanced and easy to use website with both digitized records and an extensive catalog of records not yet digitized. Unfortunately, my investigations took place before the present, very useful, website was created. I assumed that the records of Utah courts would be held in Utah. By the way, links to almost all of the Utah court records are in the State Archives. This seemingly easy-to-find scenario is complicated by the historical fact of "Federal Intervention." Here is an explanation from the Utah State Archives website of what happened:
Each county had a probate court presided over by an elected judge. No federal circuit court was ever established in Utah or with jurisdiction over Utah. Many litigants, especially Mormons, took their cases to the probate court rather than before the federally appointed judge of the district court. The effect was to displace the federally appointed courts with a system of local control. Congress reacted by placing the judiciary firmly under federal control. The Poland Act of 1874 (18 Stat. 253) restricted the probate courts to matters of estates and guardianship, removing all civil, chancery, and criminal jurisdiction. It gave the district courts exclusive jurisdiction for all suits over $300, and it abolished the local offices of the territorial marshal and territorial attorney. Probate courts maintained concurrent jurisdiction with the district courts over suits of divorce until 1887. The Edmunds Act of 1882 (22 Stat. 30) created a five-man Utah Commission to oversee elections in the territory. The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 (24 Stat. 636) reaffirmed the jurisdictional restrictions on the probate courts imposed by the Poland Act revoking all jurisdiction but in probate and guardianship matters and nullifying territorial laws providing for the election of probate judges. Probate judges then became appointed by the President of United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. Civil and criminal cases were distributed as mandated by law to justice of the peace courts or district courts. Probate courts were abolished entirely at statehood in 1896, and thereafter probate matters were assumed by the appropriate district court.
In my search for the court records, I personally visited the Utah State Archives, only to learn that the records I was seeking had been relocated to the U. S. National Archives in Denver, Colorado.  I began to wonder when I could plan a trip to Denver. After a considerable time passed, fortunately, I noticed a news release stating that many of these records had been digitized and were available on the website. Using the free access in the Mesa FamilySearch Library, I was able to get copies of the complete court file in just a few minutes of searching. Unfortunately the file did not disclose his birthplace.

The moral of this story is that records move. They can show up in unexpected places. It may take persistent and patient searching to find the records that may have moved across state and national boundaries. Never assume the records are merely lost or missing. That may be the case, but it is always the possibility that the records you are seeking were not in the courthouse when it burned or were moved for some bureaucratic reason. Keep looking.

1 comment:

  1. Despite the excellent charts and summaries at the Utah State Archives, I am looking for a court record that falls into a gap in the catalog. I know a trial took place in Utah County in 1864, but I cannot figure out where the 1864 Utah County criminal court records are located. (The Fold3 records start in the next decade, so it's not there.)

    It's irksome, but several other people are also looking for the record, so hopefully one of us will figure out if it exists, and if not, we're also looking for records associated with Judge Snow (which Snow was judge I do not yet know) or other court officials, who could at least mention the verdict in the case.